“I can’t seem to forget”: Conundrum
Well it’s an interesting one indeed.
“Conundrum” is first off incredibly deceptive. On paper it sounds for all the world like one of the most stock things Star Trek: The Next Generation has ever done and a prime example of a show running on empty: I mean come on, really? An amnesia story? For real? But in truth this is yet another fifth season highlight and a prime example of how the show has never been stronger than it is now. The first clue is that this isn’t actually your typical amnesia story,which would have involved either a mysterious hero wandering into an unfamiliar setting where we have to learn about their past alongside them or a tragic accident where the supporting cast has to try and jog the memory of the amnesiac protagonist in a forced, strangled attempt to wring hollow drama out of the show’s premise.
Star Trek: The Next Generation can’t do either of those plots, not just for the eminently sensible reason that they’re both dumb and hackneyed ideas, but also because its narrative structure would preclude that. The amnesia is just a plot device to get at the heart of what “Conundrum” is actually trying to look at, which turns out to be several different interesting things. The original idea for the submission, according to Michael Piller, was the concept of mentally reprogramming people to be soldiers by manipulating their memories and sense of identity, and thus that it was a critique of militarism and the military-industrial complex. Piller feels “Conundrum” doesn’t do justice to the original pitch and he’s right to make that criticism as that’s not quite what this story is (though there’s a bit of that at the end), but that doesn’t mean the episode as aired is any weaker as a result. If anything, this just allows it to get even more clever and fascinating.
And anyway, the first key concept “Conundrum” is exploring does actually tie somewhat into the original pitch: What would happen, the story is asking, if you had all the conscious mental signposts of how you defined your identity stripped away from you? What parts of you would remain, and would those parts still be you? The easy answer is yes, as even though Kieron MacDuff puts on a convincing ruse, the Enterprise crew simply cannot accept his evidence that they’re cold-blooded killers. But there’s a further thread to examine here, several, in fact. Through this, “Conundrum” is also making a statement about what our identities actually are and where precisely they lay-As important as the context of our life experiences are (they’ve doubtlessly shaped the Enterprise crew even when they can’t consciously remember them, after all), our innate personhood goes beyond that.
I’m not trying to tread into Cartesianism here, but you can imagine a situation where you might hold similar beliefs and make similar decisions even if your life turned out differently. You would be a different person of course, but not necessarily an unrecognisable one. Put it another way by framing it in personal identity theory terms: To reject the concept of the singular and monolithic Self does not invalidate the experiential self. Rather, by letting go of the concept that you are a self-contained entity existing disconnected and apart from all the other Selves and matter-states only serves to help you understand the disconnectedness of all the self-experiences. Your experiential identity as part of a larger whole remains, even absent traditional notions of the singular Self. In the language of this blog, the transcendent experience of ego death frees the self to live a more holistic and interdependent existence. We travel not just to better and learn more about ourselves, but to rediscover with that which connects all of us.
In Star Trek terms, this is actually almost similar to our conception of how the Mirror Universe works: These are essentially still out characters we’re looking at, just with specific background details changed. Part of the appeal is meant to be looking at how they live in and interact with a different set of circumstances. And so even without any reference as to their conscious identities, the Enterprise crew falls back into their familiar roles remarkably quickly. Laren and Geordi innately realise they’re the ship’s pilot and engineer, respectively, Beverley gets straight back to healing patients, Will wants to go check up on the crew as soon as possible while Jean-Luc immediately starts delegating. Deanna, of course, can instantly sense something fishy’s going on, though she can’t put it into words. They still instinctively understand what their true selves are.
As for the characters who seem to be mistaken, Data and Worf, they’re actually not if you think about what their roles on the show really are, as opposed to their shipboard position. Data thinks he’s the inexplicably artificial bartender and slightly oversells the inherent absurdity in his performance. In other words, he’s playing the comic relief, which is what Brent Spiner has *always* been the best at. Worf doesn’t so much think he’s the captain as much as he thinks he should be captain and sees Jean-Luc as a potential rival. In other words, he’s defaulting on Klingon norms about how chain of command works. Remember how we learned in “A Matter of Honor” that Klingons challenge their superiors to duels if they lose faith in their leadership, and this is how they advance in rank-That’s pretty much what Worf implicitly does to Jean-Luc here.
What all this means is that “Conundrum” is really about performativity. Namely, the performativity of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the different roles that go into holding it up. This is, incidentally, why Keiron MacDuff is such a threat in spite of his people’s woefully underpowered arsenal: He’s a really good actor. MacDuff knows how the show is supposed to work, and he’s a good enough narrative invader that he can manipulate things in just such a way that he’s almost capable of turning it into something evil. This also ties into the somewhat infamous tryst between Riker and Ro, which is a subplot that I have a feeling is more clever and complex than most people give it credit for. The common reading either posits their brief relationship is another example of Will’s Space Age Sex Tourist persona, or takes Deanna’s claim at the end that it was the result of subconscious urges and desires at face value, thus handily (and insultingly) reducing the characters’ animosity to stock “unresolved sexual tension”. But that’s not what I think is actually going on here.
For one thing, I think their behaviour towards one another before the “affair” starts is actually very telling. Freed from the shackles of having to dance to offensively rote and stock interpersonal drama tropes laid on by their canon backstory, Riker and Ro seem to be dreadfully utopian characters. Laren admits she can get impulsive at times because she feels powerless if she can’t act, but Will reassures her that everyone is feeling the same way, she’s not alone and that they need to work together as no one person is going to be able to fix things. That’s a perfectly understandable and respectable perspective for someone who’s lived the sort of life Laren has to hold, and Will’s gentle, encouraging response is precisely the way the Enterprise crew should have been treating her from the beginning. We could have stood to see this kind of thing everywhere in “Ensign Ro”, and it says something that we only get it when the crew get their memories wiped.
And then there’s the relationship itself. I don’t begrudge either one of them it, personally. In that situation, they’re two hot strangers who have impressed one another and have had ample opportunities to check each other out through working in such close proximity. I know a lot of people have read this as a major issue that ruins Ro’s individuality and effectiveness by making her into just a girl who has a crush on Riker and you might think I’d be inclined to agree given how upset I still am about the fallout from Tasha and Data’s rendezvous in “The Naked Now”. But I think “Conundrum” hedges pretty well against this: The thing to remember here is that Ro is still a comparatively new character and we’re not sure yet how her relationships with the rest of the crew are going to develop yet. Granted “Disaster” was somewhat crippling for her and it certainly doesn’t help that Michelle Forbes will never be as available as the rest of the main cast. But Ro doesn’t have her canon love interest yet (though we get what might be the first glimpse of that next week), and right now it’s this uncertain fluidity about where her role is going to fall that actually ends up helping her and making this plot work. See, what Laren does here is pick up narrative slack. She finds a part that needs filling and fills it. And in this case, it’s Deanna’s.
If the love triangle subplot reflects poorly on anyone, it’s not Will or Laren, but her. One can understand how she’d be drawn to Will after her memories are suppressed as she obviously recognises that the two of them are still emphatically linked, but it’s what she does with that knowledge after her memories return that’s troublesome. She clearly perceives what went on between Will and Laren as Will cheating on her, but it isn’t. Deanna is no longer Will’s girlfriend, and even if she were she wouldn’t have been after they lost their memories because everyone becomes a stranger to everyone else then. One of the best redemptive readings I think we’ve come up with for how Will and Deanna operate is that they effectively get off on each other getting off even when one of them isn’t around, a logical and physical extension of the intimate familiarity of their relationship. The last scene here sort of goes against that reading, and even if we set aside our own projections it still doesn’t fit with who these characters are supposed to be. Deanna shouldn’t have any remaining hangups about her terminated romance with Will, and indeed should be happy for him that he found such happiness with someone.
Indeed, if anyone comes across as the “jealous type” in this situation, it’s certainly not Laren, which she rather cleanly and succinctly proves in the episode’s closing moments. She tells Will “Commander, don’t worry about it. As far as I’m concerned, you and I have shared something that we will treasure forever”, and walks out of ten forward leaving him and Deanna alone. Some read this as her being sarcastic, and while that does certainly fit Ro’s character, in Michelle Forbes’ delivery I hear something else. I hear her being sincere, if disarmingly and complaisantly so (Standoffish as she may be, Laren’s ultimately not one to wear her heart on her sleeve-She’s not always comfortable opening up with raw, heartfelt feeling). What she’s done is take on Deanna’s old role as Will’s empathetic, understanding and supportive ex, which Deanna has apparently also relinquished now alongside everything else that made her distinctive. In doing so, Ro Laren has, only in her second appearance as a regular, put herself on Captain Picard’s narrative level, because this is the exact same sort of thing he did in stories like “Q Who” and “Redemption II”. She’s unquestionably a part of the Enterprise now.
(And anyway, defining Ro by her relationship with Riker really is just as bad as defining Tasha by her relationship with Data. Worse, probably, as Ro actually does have some more good material ahead of her. It’s only “Preemptive Strike”, her final guest spot, that fucks her over in this regard.)
But that aside, “Conundrum” is wonderful. You can argue amongst yourselves whether it merits classic status by virtue of these niggling issues, but in my view it remains one more highlight from a stellar run of stories.
July 20, 2015 @ 3:26 am
I've always liked this one. But I'm not sure I agree with the idea it seems to profess – that one's fundamental ethical self is wholly separate from one's training and life history. It seems to be saying that good people just are good even if you take away everything that shapes their worldview, their view of themselves, their social situation, etc. I admit I haven't thought deeply about this.
This bit of your essay – "…by letting go of the concept that you are a self-contained entity existing disconnected and apart from all the other Selves and matter-states only serves to help you understand the disconnectedness of all the self-experiences. Your experiential identity as part of a larger whole remains, even absent traditional notions of the singular Self" – seems to actually agree with the message of the episode as I characterised it above. But then we get to this bit – "…the transcendent experience of ego death frees the self to live a more holistic and interdependent existence. We travel not just to better and learn more about ourselves, but to rediscover with that which connects all of us." – I see the outlines of a different way of looking at it. The freedom from a version of oneself wrapped in certain egoistic relations frees you to more fully engage with your social situation. The Enterprise crew don't refuse to do what MacDuff wants because they have an inviolable inner core of decency but rather because, without the clutter of ego, they still function as a team, a society.
It is possible that a non-mind-wiped crew, given aggressive and warlike orders by Starfleet, might actually lack the ability to disobey orders?
July 20, 2015 @ 7:18 am
It's funny because in reading it, I actually found it easier to in this case, define Will by his relationship with Laren, rather than vice-versa. There's of course the context working against it – it's not this episode's fault, but a bunch of other episodes – that there's not a woman on this crew that Will hasn't now had sex with. But ignoring that for a minute … the story, but particularly the performances from Frakes and Forbes … really sell the idea that once their memories of "self" are gone, these two have really been stripped down to the cores of "who they are".
And she's a slightly reckless, take charge girl (which is the real reason she got in trouble), and he's a highly social, empathetic and flirtatious guy. On paper, they're bloody well made for each other, but their baggage gets in the way. And when the baggage is added back in, we see that unless they can find a different way to shed some of that baggage, they're probably not going to get back to that state of easy comfort with each other.
Something of a shame really, as Frakes and Forbes have a really easy chemistry that I could've stood to see more of.
I think that speaks to a lot of the same themes with the rest of the cast, as losing their "self" in no way actually changes the core of these characters. Nor does it remotely curb their curiosity. Deanna immediately relays the curiosity that they have an android bartender. Even Worf's more klingonish, aggressive tendencies are prudent decisions, and not unfounded. And Beverly desperately, in hybrid doctor/science officer form, wants to get to the bottom of the mystery.
My only gripe – and it's already a pretty loaded full episode – is that it would've been neat to see how "loss of identity" affected married couple Miles and Keiko, as there's some good drama there. Two people, with a newborn baby, who are apparently married – would've covered some of the "other people on the ship" who were presumably confused.
The episode is very bridge-crew focused, to the point where the other 800 people on board don't even really factor in.
July 20, 2015 @ 7:21 am
Just to add – why it was so easy to define Will by Laren rather than the more expected notion of defining her by her relationship to him, is Forbes' commanding presence and performance, as a woman with agency, and who isn't going to let a pesky thing like mild irritation at vulnerability get in the way of doing her job and living her life.
Riker ends up being the submissive one, more or less – though it's not a dominant thing, more of a give/take thing, which is more reflective of natural, healthy relationships anyway than the usual TV nonsense.
July 20, 2015 @ 3:50 pm
I found that while the episode and its characters did try to say there was some inherent goodness to the characters, such goodness isn't absolute, but simply rooted deeper than amnesia can take away. Because the amnesia of this episode's conceit couldn't render them completely useless, the crew had to remember their technical skills, language, and all the basic attributes of their being able to negotiate their own world. That includes, in the broadest sense, their characters.
But even then, the problem only really becomes obvious when the Enterprise starts steamrolling through the battle fleets of this culture they've supposedly fought for years. Everyone except McDuff feels immediately suspicious and put off. It's not the violence itself that turns them against their secret hijacker, but the fact that the climactic battle they've been bracing themselves for is too easy. Their new narrative stops making sense.
The question of whether the crew under ordinary conditions would disobey aggressive, warmongering, vile orders from Starfleet, as far as I'm concerned, really has to wait until Insurrection.